I'm often asked, usually by Veronica with tears streaming down her eyes as I'm about to put another DVD into the player, why I love the old movie serials so much?
Movie serials, for those of you born within the last 50 years so you have probably no idea, were the precursor to the Television Show in the days before we all sat mindlessly in front of our 50" plasma screens. Each week when you'd go to the movies (imagine going to the movies every week!) you would catch a newsreel, a cartoon, a short subject (like the Three Stooges), a main feature, a second feature and a new chapter to a weekly serial.
Serials started during the silent era as a way of hooking viewers to come back each week, because each episode typically ended with the hero or heroine in a hazardous situation, sometimes even hanging off a cliff, which gave them their nickname, Cliffhangers.
Each chapter usually ran about 15 minutes (or two reels of film). The first chapters were sometimes a bit longer, with DRUMS OF FU-MANCHU I think the first chapter is almost 45 minutes.
In the sound era the studios producing serials looked to Old Time Radio, Pulp Magazines, Comic Strips and the new genre of Comic Books to find their heroes, producing serials with characters like Captain Marvel (1941), Captain America (1944), Dick Tracy (1937, 1938, 1941), Red Barry (1938), Mandrake the Magician (1939), The Phantom (1943), The Green Hornet (1939, 1940), The Lone Ranger (1938, 1939), Batman (1943, 1949), Superman (1948, 1950), Buck Rogers (1939), Spy Smasher (1942), The Spider (1938, 1941) and The Shadow (1940).
But the biggest, and possibly most successful serial of all time was FLASH GORDON (1936) starring Buster Crabbe as Alex Raymond's Comic Strip Adventurer and Charles Middleton as MING The Merciless, possibly the greatest villain in movie history. Flash was so popular it had two sequels, FLASH GORDON'S TRIP TO MARS (1938) and FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE (1940). Production values on all the Flash films were high, unusual for serials which were usually produced on a shoestring budget.
If you've ever seen or enjoyed the campy 1980 big budget version of FLASH GORDON or any of the STAR WARS films then you owe a bit of thanks to these versions of Flash.
I'm planning on writing a book on serials soon, and you, faithful readers will be the first to know about it, but here, off the top of my head are my recommendations for the best movie serials, all of them available either commercially or through eBay with black market sellers.
1. Flash Gordon (1936) -- although I'm partial to Conquers and Mars too.
2. Drums of Fu Manchu (1940) This one might even out do Flash if I gave it more thought.
3. Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) There's more action in the first chapter of this one than your average big budget summer film today.
4. The Spider's Web (1938) The body count reaches triple digits by Chapter 3.
5. Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939) Just don't let the opening song get stuck in your head.
6. The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) The first time a superhero was ever put on film, and it's easily the best of them.
7. The Batman (1943) Zombies, Japanese Spies and killer alligators in a secret cave of terror-- what more could you ask for? Oh yeah, Batman too.
8. Spy Smasher (1942) This is a pretty darn good serial.
9. The Crimson Ghost (1946) Serials had started to go downhill, and although the characters are a bit cardboard, you've got a great villain whom The Misfits adopted as their mascot and Linda Sterling who is one of the great serial heroines. Had there been a Wonder Woman serial, she would have been my choice for it.
10. The Phantom (1943) The same guy who played Captain Marvel stars as The Phantom, and he looks like he just stepped off the comics page. Great jungle action!